The enduring appeal of Laurel and Hardy takes one man back to his childhood
One of the many Saturday afternoon joys of my 1970s childhood was the sight of The Buffalo Evening News carrier and the realization that I was moments away from being able to read TV Topics.
I would meet the kid before he got to the door, grab the paper from him, and begin searching line by line through the TV listings for a Laurel and Hardy movie. On those magnificent days when I found one, I would call my friend Timmy Galvin or knock on his door four houses away and tell him. Then we would begin planning how we could watch it together.
I loved the characters of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and the men they inhabited, for reasons I couldn’t explain then but now realize are simple: They made me laugh, longer and louder than anything else I had ever experienced.
It took Hollywood far too long to bring their story to life in the new film “Stan & Ollie.” But that’s a quibble. What’s important is the lives of two men born in the 19th century, who defined comedy for the 20th finally are getting their due in the 21st.
Not enough people appreciated them while they were alive and making shorts and feature-length films from the silent era through the 1940s. They were overshadowed by Charlie Chaplin or compared to other great teams, including the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. But they endure because their comedy is simple, timeless and hilarious.
My introduction came during the years when public television ran their short films. Locally, that meant Friday nights on WNED Channel 17, the same time Americans were being introduced to a different kind of comedy genius via “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
I think the first short I saw was an early talkie called “Men O’War” (1929). The premise is simple: The boys are on leave from the Navy, meet a couple of young ladies and want to buy them a soda. But they have only enough money for three drinks. They finally settle on a solution: They will split a drink and buy two for the ladies. But when the drink comes, Stan downs the whole thing. A dejected Oliver looks at the empty glass and then Stan.
“Do you know what you’ve done?”
Stan, looking away, nods.
“What made you do it?”
Stan: “I couldn’t help it.”
“My half was on the bottom.”
I remember exploding in laughter. The scene had every L&H trademark: The comic violence. Hardy’s slow burn and long looks at the camera. And the coup de grace, the tears of Laurel followed by that goofy smile.
It was all over for me. I wanted to see everything they ever made and know everything about them. Over the next few years, I nearly succeeded.
My family knew how I felt and devoted themselves to finding me Laurel and Hardy stuff, sometimes buying it for my birthday or Christmas.
My bookcase contained every book I could get my hands on, some of which still show the indentations where I tried to trace their images. I had a Laurel lamp. When my friends were buying the latest from KISS or Led Zeppelin, I was buying albums that were the recorded dialogue from their films. The only model car I ever attempted to make was a Model-T like the one they drove. Most memorably, my stepfather painted their image on my bedroom wall so I could see them when I awoke every morning.
I was obsessed. I learned that a company called Blackhawk Films put out a catalog and sold 8 mm versions of their films. I dreamed of being able to own my own collection and begged at Christmas time for a $300 film projector, a childhood and childish request that probably wisely went unheeded.
I’m not quite as obsessed as I was, although I will make sojourns to Hamburg when Jay Ruof puts the boys on the screen at his Palace theater. But I still have moments.
One came earlier this month. I was looking at the on-screen guide on my TV when I saw that Turner Classic Movies was showing the Academy Award-winning short “The Music Box” (1932). But that wasn’t all: The network also was showing “Brats” (1930), “Way Out West” (1937), “A Chump at Oxford” (1940) and more. It was an L&H-a-palooza. I nearly shrieked and set the DVR to record all of them.
And then I did what I always did: I told Timmy Galvin. He doesn’t live down the street anymore, so I went on Facebook and told him.
“May have moved,” he responded. “But haven’t forgotten.”
“Stan & Ollie,” the new biopic on Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, opens Jan. 25 at the Dipson Amherst and Eastern Hills Mall cinemas.